Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A review

Several years ago, I took a continuing education course entitled "The Great American Novel" at our local college. One of the works discussed in the course was The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I never actually read the book during the course, but I've always been curious about it and it had long languished on my TBR list. Time to tick that box.

This short novel - actually more a novella or long short story - was published in 1892. It was inspired by the author's own experience with mental illness. Following the birth of her child, she suffered from what we would now recognize as severe postpartum depression. 

Both her husband and her brother were agreed that the best treatment for what ailed her was the "rest cure," which was recommended by a specialist. It was essentially a period of enforced inactivity and solitude. And so this was the treatment which Charlotte endured. Her opinion on the matter was not solicited.

Then, some years later, she fictionalized her experience in The Yellow Wallpaper. One wonders what her husband and brother thought when they read it. We may have a partial answer in the fact that Charlotte and her first husband were divorced in 1894.

In the book, a woman suffering from an unnamed mental disorder is taken to a house in the country to rest and recover from her illness. A nurse cares for her baby. Her husband is a doctor who works long hours. She is left mostly on her own in a room that was once a nursery and which is papered in a yellow wallpaper with a busy Romanesque pattern. She is told to sleep as much as possible.

As she lies in bed staring at the paper, she begins to see different patterns in it. Eyes staring back at her. Bars, as in a prison. A malevolent woman who crawls around the room on the paper...

As she becomes completely obsessed with the wallpaper, she descends further into madness. She attempts to talk with her husband to tell him what she is seeing and feeling, but he will not listen to her. In these attempted conversations, her husband constantly refers to her as "baby" or "little girl". He no doubt sees these as terms of endearment but they are diminishing to a woman who has faced the life-threatening, certainly life-altering, experience of childbirth and come through it. 

But All-Wise Man knows best and does not need input from a mere woman.

When The Yellow Wallpaper was first published, it was read as a bit of horror fiction. Gilman always insisted, however, that it was meant as a cautionary tale, warning people of the potential harm to be done by this sort of solitary confinement, especially to the mind of a person who is already depressed or distressed. She sent a copy of it to the specialist who had recommended her own "rest cure" and he subsequently altered his practices. 

With the coming of the struggle for equal rights for women, The Yellow Wallpaper has become a feminist classic. It details 19th century attitudes toward women's mental and physical health issues and the fact that women's opinions about those issues were never asked for or considered. Men made all those decisions for them.

And here we are in the 21st century and men in government are still making the decisions about women's health issues, without input from women. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

6 comments:

  1. Actually, the same would have happened to a man; the difference is that the woman was suffering from post-partum depression. Psychiatry used to have evil practices for both genders; it wasn't harsher on a woman than a man.

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    1. Psychiatry was certainly in its Dark Ages stage at the time. I think the difference is that a man would have had a choice and might have been allowed input. A woman would not.

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  2. A cautionary tale indeed and an understandable divorce. We have made some progress but not enough. P. x

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    1. All progress has been slow and painstaking. Sometimes it seems that for every step forward we take two steps back.

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  3. While you were reading The Yellow Wallpaper, I was reading The Bell Jar. By the 20th century there were shock treatments and lobotomies. I find the value in reading these books is that the women get to tell their stories, the best therapy of all, and we get to receive those stories.

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    1. Women telling their stories is always a good thing, I think.

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